The American Civil War: A Handbook of Literature and Research

By Robin Higham; Steven E. Woodworth | Go to book overview

34 Enlisted Soldiers

William Garrett Piston

The common soldier received little attention in Civil War writings until the 1880s, when time had softened animosities between blue and gray and aging veterans looked back on the war as a grand adventure. In an era that embraced social Darwinism, the war took on a new meaning. For white Americans unsettled by rapid urbanization, industrialization, and mechanization, reading about the war did more than satisfy a nostalgia for an allegedly simpler time. Like the joint memorializing of battlefields by Union and Confederate veterans, such readings reflected unity through shared struggle. Emphasis on the suffering and hardships of the common soldiers, rather than the achievements of great generals, allowed reunited Americans to view the war as a great purifying experience that had brought out the best in the Anglo-Saxon "race."


WORKS BY VETERANS

The first major work on the common soldier was written by Carlton McCarthy, a former private in the Richmond Howitzers. His Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life in the Army of Northern Virginia ( 1882) established, with humor and candor, the topical categories that most subsequent works have followed. Indeed, his descriptions of the way soldiers learned to care for themselves in camp and on the march, their confrontation with the realities of warfare, their resistance to regimentation, and their conflict with officers touch on themes that soldiers of any era would recognize.

Much of what scholars have since written about the common soldier in the Civil War parallels McCarthy. His exploration of soldier life includes "Cooking

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